The modding community of Skyrim wastes no time. Not even a week went by from when Steam announced they would support non-Valve games having paid mods, starting with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, before they decided to take the feature down. An announcement made on Steam highlights that they realised from customer feedback that it was a bad idea to introduce the model into the already-established Skyrim mod community. It turns out that although Steam has had success with introducing paid mods in their own gaming communities, Skyrim’s community was a whole new kettle of fish.
The basics of this feature were relatively simple: mod authors can upload their mods to the Steam Workshop with a monetary value of their choosing. Users can then purchase these mods. The revenue is split: 25% to the mod author and the rest split between Valve and the game owner (in this case, Bethesda). They operate a 24-hour refund policy as well, so if you download a mod you don’t end up liking, you can uninstall it and get a refund.
To the practical-minded, the uninvolved, and those from modding communities that already have this feature (such as Team Fortress 2) that sounds fair enough. And while some mod users will lament at having to pay for mods, there are many that understand the work that goes into that and wouldn’t mind compensating for it. But the system hasn’t been thought out and it flies in the face of the community’s atmosphere as a whole.
Unfortunately, the Skyrim mod community is rife with theft, people stealing the mod of others and redistributing them for free for reputation and bragging rights alone. This new system gave them an avenue not just to distribute stolen mods, but to profit off of them. The Workshop had also seen a flood of mediocre mods trying to cash in on a quick change. For example, there was a mod that adds 25,000 gold for the low, low price of £0.33. That doesn’t sound like much – unless you consider that all you need to do that is a simple console command in-game, for free. (It’s “player.additem f 25000”, by the way. That’ll be £1, please.)
Oddly enough, I couldn’t find an FAQ or guide on what this “review” process was. For starters, it seemed to conflict with Bethesda’s own requirement that the Workshop be uncurated. This was because they didn’t want the communicate stifled or censored – which is noble, but a little naive. The number of mods “Under Review” far outnumbered those released, so how did those mods get put under review? My only guess is that if a mod was flagged as “unsuitable” or in violation, it was then put under review. But as I said, I couldn’t actually find anything on it.
Moving on to the more touchy-feely side of things, the concept just felt wrong at this point. There is a general understanding and feel to the community, that mod authors were doing this as a hobby and we appreciated their time and effort and their willingness to share their creations with us. Introducing pay options to mods turns it from a loving hobby into cold business. “I will make this mod because it makes me money.” “I will make these changes that I don’t necessarily agree with because ‘customers’ have a demand for it.” “If I am a good person, I must support my mod through thick and thin because people are paying for it.” A lot of mod authors have seen strain when interest in their mods has arisen and struggled with the feedback of suggested changes, support requests, and general self-entitlement some users feel – and that’s when it was free.
This one just may be me, it also feels in direct conflict to the big rule Bethesda and the community itself has been drilling into its head since the days of Morrowind – you don’t make money from mods. It has always been a part of the EULA for Bethsoft’s games that you cannot make money off of content created with their Creation Kit. While you may make your own 3D models, customised textures, or insert new audio to the game, the mod files themselves (the .esp and .esm files) cannot be sold. Some people fought against this grain by hiding their mods behind paywalls, such as hosting them on sites that required paid memberships or “mandatory” donations. Any time someone tried to make users pay, Bethesda tended not to waste time in smacking their hands. The concept of donations became popular, which Nexus Mods (the leading site for uploading and downloading mod creations) has facilitated. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were using Patreon as a platform as well. We all embraced it – mod authors and users. So to suddenly have this notion turned on its head, to be told you could outright sell and buy mods and it was okay – it’s not something that settled in well. My instincts, the ones Bethesda instilled in me, just keeps telling me that it’s wrong, even though they are the ones now saying it’s right. (This is starting to sound like a bad porn…)
The backlash was immediate and massive. The community was up in arms and divided. Some agreed with the monetisation and some vehemently opposed it. Another divide was against the mod authors themselves – those who support the mod authors who decided to partake in the system and those who lambasted them as sell-outs. It became so toxic that one mod authors whom was invited to pilot the system, Chesko, has begun retreating from the mod community altogether after his experience with both Valve and with users. I can’t say I’m surprised that the community has gone into uproar, even to a horrid degree. It is an internet community, after all, and is not immune to the anonymous-mob perils that come with it.
Ultimately, I just don’t know. I feel like I’m too close to it, being an avid user of mods since Oblivion as well as dabbling in making a few of my own. I can understand the positive intent they were trying to make – allowing mod authors to be properly compensated for their efforts, paving the way for larger and more elaborate mods to be created now that there was real hard incentive to work on them, creating a platform for mod authors to apply their skills professionally. Still, it just didn’t feel right, like some of the soul of it has been tarnished by throwing a fresh of capitalist paint on it.
As a final thought, I’m curious if this model would have been more successfully introduced on a new game from the start, such as maybe the next Fallout game. Sure, there would be some backlash there as well, but if the precedent is set from the beginning, it may not feel as such a foreign (or offensive) concept. It would also give them time to think things through better, maybe take a look at the existing Workshop communities and even examine other parties (such as the Unreal Marketplace) to see how things are going there. It’s just clear that their first approach was ill-timed and naively done.